Nuovo: Lucretius and Epicurean virtue
Editor’s note: This is the 14th in a series of essays on Lucretius, an early philosopher who provides a link to “lost classics” through his epic poem “On the Nature of Things.”
14. Epicurean Virtue
“A life without virtue is not worth living” is a moral maxim that Epicurus might have coined. He conceived human life as more than striving for contentment and avoidance of pain. It required something greater, namely virtue, which is the perfection of human character, human excellence. And of these, he highlighted three: wisdom, nobility, and justice.
This is not a standard list of virtues. It may be recalled that Plato listed four: wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice, and this became standard. Of course, Greek philosophers recognized many more virtues than these. In his own account, Aristotle included many others: philanthropy, magnificence, greatness of soul, gentleness, truthfulness, and even more for which we have no names. These short lists are merely summaries. Courage and self-control are implied in all of Epicurus’ written remains; they are not lacking. Here he wanted only to make a point, as did Plato, when he compiled his list of four.
Epicurus’ point is that the life of virtue must be noble. The Greek word for this is kalos, which signifies what is beautiful, noble, and fine; it is supposed to be the quality of all virtues. But what is the point of this? Epicurus wants us to see that a virtuous life has an aesthetic as well as a moral quality: it must be beautiful, noble, fine.
And it is just here that we see Epicurus in the role of religious reformer. The Gods are beautiful, noble, and fine. It may be recalled that neither Epicurus, nor Lucretius after him, denied that the Gods exist; rather they affirmed their existence without qualification. They supposed that the Gods dwelt in an enduring sanctuary in outer space. The Gods exemplified to them a life of perfect order, tranquility, freedom from any want, friendship, and contentment.
And, although they denied that the Gods created us, or that they gave us a law, after which we should order our lives, and according to which we will be judged — which is why they have been branded as atheists, they were in agreement that we should venerate them just because and only because they are noble, and by that quality they exemplify the sort of life to which we should aspire.
Their idea of the Gods was visual and even tangible, for they were supposed to have bodies; they were, like us and everything else that is, material beings. And then there were models of the Gods everywhere for everyone to see in the temples of ancient Greece, the very images of the Gods were housed within them. In their sanctuaries, the Gods by their sculpted beauty revealed the quality of excellence. They also offered a tranquil refuge from human madness.
This is not to say that Epicurus imagined that the life of the Gods is essentially better than our own; they are not better than us because they are better looking, or everlasting; their lives are consistently noble, and if in our short span of life, any one of us were to achieve such perfection, then that person would be a God, albeit a mortal one. It is not the duration of a life, but its character that makes it noble.
Thus Lucretius attributes divinity to Epicurus. “He was a God, who first discovered that reasoned plan of life, which we now call wisdom, who by great art rescued our minds from turbulence and profound darkness and established wisdom in a calm clear light.” Especially, he is a God, because he taught us to live, like the Gods, a life free of care.
Also, it is for this reason, that Lucretius could regard nature as divine: Venus, whose generative power is infinite, never failing in potency, vast and wonderful, and whose wonders can only be encountered by an intelligence that boldly goes where no one has gone before. Nature is the never-ending realm of being, an infinite power that gives and takes away, which endows our sensible finite lives with pleasures and delights, and ennobles our minds by revealing the sublime secrets of her everlasting self. To embrace the thought of nature is uplifting and transfiguring. We are her offspring. Such is human wisdom, when it is most refined.
And what of justice, in what respect can we think of it as beautiful, noble, and fine? Justice is the virtue of civil society. Unlike Plato, Epicurus did not suppose that there exists an archetype of the state, pristine in its ideal beauty. It is a product of human intelligence motivated by human need, and negotiated and agreed upon by equals, celebrated by fine monuments, all the work of mortal beings. Yet, because it is a product of trial and error, of imagination, reflection, calculation, we may regard the state as a work of art — the art of politics. It is “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
A noble society is one that is so conceived, whose laws are rules of mutual advantage and respect, which are not fixed for all time, but which reliably reflect real need, and provide real benefits and advantages, so the state is an unfinished work, or a living work, of limitless adaptability, like medicine or architecture or plumbing. Moreover, a noble society is one that is secure from its neighbors, because it is at peace with them. It is internally stable, because it possesses a mechanism for rational and deliberate change, its laws and practices are fair and equitable; and besides the bond of mutually beneficial laws, its members can rely on bonds of friendship. This is as good as it gets.
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